In summary

Laura W. Brill, The Civics Center: People who care about democracy want to know whether young people will turn out to vote in November 2020. More than 3.5 million students graduate from high school every year. Those who register can be expected to turnout at rates above 75% in the November election. Whether or not they register depends, first and foremost, on whether we ask.

By Laura W. Brill, Special to CalMatters

Laura W. Brill is a lawyer in Los Angeles and founder and director of The Civics Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan project of Community Partners, laura@thecivicscenter.org. She wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

People who care about democracy want to know whether young people will turn out to vote in November 2020. The question they should be asking first is whether young people will even be registered.

Here in California, young people can pre-register to vote as soon as they turn 16. Folks are starting to take notice. The pre-registration rate among 16 and 17 year olds has increased 81% since September 2018. 

Behind that large increase are county changes that are equally and more dramatic. The rate in San Bernardino County increased 120% during that period. In Riverside, it increased 92%, and in Los Angeles, it increased 50%. Those are huge changes in a relatively short period of time.

Most statistics in the voting world do not change that dramatically that fast. So how are these huge leaps possible? There are a variety of factors, including hard work by elected officials, teachers, students, and nonprofits like mine, The Civics Center, which focuses on improving opportunities for high school voter registration. 

Unfortunately, the other reason we are seeing such a large percentage jump is simply that the starting point was so low. Back in September 2018, when I started The Civics Center, the pre-registration rate for 16 and 17 year olds in California was just 9.6%. 

There are only two good things about that number:

  • The first is the huge opportunities for improvement, which happily is starting to happen.
  • The second is that the state of California makes information on pre-registration rates available with a county-by-county breakdown.  

Many states do not.

What California’s low starting point also means, however, is that even with a huge percentage increase from September 2018, the statewide pre-registration rate today is still just 17.4%.  

San Mateo County, at 20.58% is the only large county in the state with a pre-registration rate above 20%. In Monterey County, the pre-registration rate has actually declined during this same period and is now under 14%. 

Low pre-registration rates are not unique to California. In Maine, for example, which allows pre-registration beginning at 17, fewer than 1% of 17 year olds had taken advantage of the opportunity as of last summer.

The opportunities for improvement also are not limited to California and Maine. 

In 34 states, young people who will turn 18 by the Nov. 3 election date can register to vote today. In most remaining states, virtually all young people will be eligible to register before they graduate. 

Most young people, however, are never asked to register. Most schools have no budget, no planning, and no training to get the millions of students who graduate every year registered to vote before they walk out the doors at the end of senior year. This absence contributes to an inefficient and inequitable system for bringing young people into our democracy.

High school voter registration drives, in which students encourage one another to register, regularly achieve results. In these instances, hundreds of young people register together and through this process can see for themselves the impact they might have. 

More than 3.5 million students graduate from high school every year. Those who register can be expected to turnout at rates above 75% in the November election. 

Whether or not they register depends, first and foremost, on whether we ask.

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Laura W. Brill is a lawyer in Los Angeles and founder and director of The Civics Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan project of Community Partners, laura@thecivicscenter.org. She wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

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